A world at arms: thoughts on Hearts of Iron IV

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HOI4 French Battle PlansVive l’Entente! My first “proper” game of Hearts of Iron IV was a journey from desperation, through grind, to eventual triumph. Playing as Britain, World War II began a year early, in 1938, when I backed Czechoslovakia at Munich. This defiance came to little avail, as the German war machine rolled over Czechoslovakia, and British workers raced to equip an unprepared military.

Finally, the Axis marched into the Balkans — and stalled in the face of dogged Yugoslav, British, and Commonwealth resistance. As British troops helped stabilise France’s Alpine front, and the United States entered the war,   I dared to think Germany’s days were numbered. Would the Soviet Union take advantage of German preoccupation to march on Berlin?

The Soviets entered the war, all right — on the wrong side. Stalin sent an ultimatum to British-aligned Romania. The Romanians refused. Now, the Allies were at war with both the Axis and the Soviets. Stalemate — and a little frustration on my part — set in.

In time, I broke the stalemate. In Europe, I unleashed the “Brits-krieg”: my armoured spearhead, now lavishly equipped with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery, shattered the totalitarians’ lines. In the Pacific, British marines and aircraft carriers pushed up towards Japan. After a long, gruelling war, final victory came in 1946.

HOI4 RN vs IJNVive la France! Several more attempts, this time as France, went less well. In one game, I defeated Germany single-handed, only to be bulldozed by the Soviets pushing from the east and Spain coming from across the Pyrenees. Eventually, the stars came into alignment. Shielded by an extended Maginot Line, I built up my strength, overpowered Germany, and sat down with Stalin to determine the fate of Europe. Then when World War III broke out in response to a Soviet attack on Turkey, I did it all over again, pushing the Red Army back from the Rhine and avenging Napoleon’s defeat.

Possibly the best Hearts of Iron game yet. I’ve played this series for over a decade, since the original Hearts of Iron, and for most of that time my affections have belonged to Hearts of Iron 2. Now, I can’t imagine going back: HOI4 combines great alternate-history potential with a solid underlying design and improved quality of life. At present, as is so often the case with highly complex strategy games, its greatest limitation is the AI 1.

More detail below:

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  1. See also Dominions and Total War.

Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Total War: Warhammer

Total Warhammer - the emperor strikes backI am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.

When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.

And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts.  An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!

Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1.  From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.

More detailed thoughts below:

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  1. I played on Hard campaign difficulty, Normal battle difficulty.

Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Stellaris ESS startHumanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.

Stellaris - Immathurans encounteredSome of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.

On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.

Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.

Stellaris grand fleet 2This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.

Stellaris defeated UbaricHumanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!

Stellaris end mapGood game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)

Below, I elaborate:

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Arcadian Atlas Q&A, with Taylor Bair

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 7.50.35 AM copyUpdate: Arcadian Atlas‘ Kickstarter campaign is now live and can be accessed here.

Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.

I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.

And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.

We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.

 

Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?

We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.

Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.

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Thoughts on XCOM 2

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM 2 victoryWorthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!

More detailed thoughts below:

This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.

Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.

Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM lategame characters

  1. Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead.

XCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it!

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM2 Briggs Misses His ShotI did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.

On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.

On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.

Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:

*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.

*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!

*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…

Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.

  1. The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct.

Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter Q&A, with Wael Amr

2016 is due to see the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the next entry in Frogwares’ long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. As a fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments — which I called an “interesting, ambitious example” of thematic puzzle design — I reached out to Frogwares to find out more. Read on for my interview with Wael Amr, Frogwares CEO, in which we chat about The Devil’s Daughter and the broader adventure genre:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

Frogwares is perhaps best known for its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, most recently 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. How did you come to work on these games, and how has the series evolved?

We started to work on the series in 2001. Our first game was a very traditional adventure game at that time.

Every game we made since was different, in technology, scenarios, control scheme and gameplay.

The versatility of Sherlock Holmes allows to have more than one kind of gameplay or controls scheme.

Our last game, The Devil’s Daughter features probably the wider range of game mechanic we ever created.

 

The next Sherlock Holmes game will be The Devil’s Daughter, due for release in 2016. What can you tell us about its new features, and which do you consider the most significant?

I would say that the most significant is the rhythm of the game, that is rather dynamic. It is due to new mechanics of course, but not only, the new character controller, the removal of loading, make the overall pace more dynamic and active. Focus tests showed it was a very welcomed change. The heart of the game is cases investigation and it remains so.

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My games (and memorable moments) of 2015

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Welcome back to my Games of the Year list. This year, I’ve highlighted notable achievements, as well as favourite moments from games old and new.

Favourite aesthetics: Several games deserve a mention: Apotheon, for sheer uniqueness (below); the vibrant, colourful Tales from the Borderlands; and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, with its evocative art. Nobunaga’s Ambition also has great ambient music — I still listen to it on loop.

Apotheon - graphicsFavourite characters: Rhys and Fiona, the heroes of Tales from the Borderlands. Fiona is sharp and capable and funny; Rhys is a loveable bumbler, dreaming nebulous dreams of wealth and power. When his ridiculous get-rich-quick scheme collides with Fiona’s, the plot is set in motion. Throughout the game, I did my best to play them as decent people — loyal to their friends and, where possible, respectful of human life — and was rewarded with satisfying, sympathetic leads. They gave me many laughs, several moments that resonated with me, and a triumphant scene where Rhys demonstrates his character growth.

TFTB - Rhys Fiona reaching Continue reading “My games (and memorable moments) of 2015”

Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Nobunaga's Ambition - VictorySurprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.

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Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of my favourite classic novels, a picaresque set in nineteenth-century India. When the Secret Games Company launched a Kickstarter for a video game adaptation, I was keen to find out more. Read on for my interview with developer Jeremy Hogan:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.

Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.

 

 

Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?

Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.

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Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - ERE at nightThe East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.

When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.

When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.

Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.

Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.

Attila - ERE map turn 28Below, I have a few more thoughts:

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Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - AoC Cavalry croppedAge of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.

More details below:

Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:

AoC - Charlemagne start Continue reading “Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila”

Fallout 4: Early impressions

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Fallout 4

The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.

Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.

When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.

A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.

That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?

While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.

A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.

My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.

A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.

The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.

The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.

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From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.

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Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

Read more here.

From the archives: What five games say about violence

I originally wrote this in 2013, contrasting the approach taken by five big-name games towards violence. Arguably, recent years have seen greater awareness of what’s possible for a non-violent game, such as “walking simulators”, a renaissance in adventure games, the growing popularity of creation-focused games such as Kerbal Space Program, and outright subversive titles such as This War of Mine.  I look forward to seeing what options are available in another two years.

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“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett

I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.

violence-games-table-v2Read more here.

Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Akechi Mitsuhide did not have long to gloat.

After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition at war

Mitsuhide was squashed flat:

Nobunagas Ambition - Naomasa Defeats Akechi

Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition Destroyed Akechi

Continue reading “Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition”

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, opportunity comes in many forms.

When my Tokugawa clan was small and insignificant, sandwiched between the rival Imagawa clan and our mutual ally Oda Nobunaga, opportunity came when the Imagawa let their alliance with Oda lapse. My armies marched against Imagawa — and true to the Oda/Tokugawa pact, Nobunaga himself came south to fight by my side.

When the Imagawa were defeated, and I found myself locked in bloody stalemate against the much larger Hojo clan for 15 years, my hopes turned to an alliance with a third power — the Takeda. When scripted historical events derailed the Takeda alliance — not once but twice — my first reaction was frustration. My second reaction was to think outside the box. The Oda were pressing the Takeda further away. The Hojo were quiescent. Why not bury the hatchet with Hojo and descend on the distracted Takeda?

Messengers went out. I gifted the Hojo with a precious tea set, reversing their opinion from “hostile” to “friendly”. The Tokugawa armies crossed the border into Takeda territory, seized their first castle…

… and another event popped up. Oda Nobunaga, my faithful ally from the start of the game, was dead, murdered by a treacherous vassal. The Oda domain – the huge blob that both anchored my northern flank, and blocked my expansion – dissolved, its settlements going to Nobunaga’s kinsmen and generals.

This is the situation a couple of years before Nobunaga’s death – I (Tokugawa) am the yellow-on-green faction towards the south of the map. Oda is red-on-white:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Pre Honnoji 1And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Post Honnoji 1The game has gone from “deadlock” to “wide open”. Where I had been on the verge of restarting, now I see — opportunity.

After spending the weekend with Nobunaga’s Ambition, my impressions are positive. I’d say it’s a very promising grand strategy game, combining solid execution, interesting mechanics, and a great aesthetic. So far, worth what I paid at launch!  My main question is how well the mechanics will scale to large empires, the traditional 4X/GSG late game problem – my own empire is quite modest.

Below, I have a few more thoughts:

Continue reading “Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions”

EB Expo 2015: Lego Steals the Show

EB Expo - Vault BoyThe EB Expo is an annual gaming event held at Sydney Olympic Park, traditionally featuring a mix of AAA games and local indies. For me, that makes it a great opportunity to venture beyond my traditional stomping ground, PC strategy games.

This year’s event appeared far more focused on the major brands. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were all there, along with publishers such as EA, Ubisoft and Warner Brothers. Compared to previous years, there were fewer indies present — a bit of a disappointment, as chatting to each year’s indies is one of my favourite things about the show.

This year’s highlight was a Lego exhibition, organised by the same people behind Sydney Bricks (the Sydney Lego User Group). Seriously, check this out – it’s a retro arcade constructed out of Lego, complete with a little diner:

20151002_102259 Continue reading “EB Expo 2015: Lego Steals the Show”

Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!

 

Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

Continue reading “Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes”

The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC - Coup

Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.

For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.

Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.

The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.

Continue reading “The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation”

  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.

Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

Continue reading “Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game”

Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.

V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:

  • There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
  • There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
  • The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
  • Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…

At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.

Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.

Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.

Further reading (and listening)

The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.

Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

Report of the Spanish ambassador to Meiguo, 1600

In the three months since I departed Your Majesty’s presence, I have travelled first to our colony of New Spain, then thousands of miles north overland. I write to you now from the court of Meiguo, on the shores of another sea.

Like ourselves, the rulers of Meiguo are not native to the New World. They trace their ancestry to a deposed emperor of China, who fled his home near two centuries ago. Since arriving, they have extended their reach far south and east: they abut our colonies in Mexico, and also along the Rio Grande.

While Meiguo’s domains are vast, they are sparsely populated. I saw few towns during our journey north; I will be surprised if these lands contribute much to the Meiguo purse.

Continue reading “Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West”

Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Oriental Empires

OE1

Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:

 

About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.

 

2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.

 

About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

Continue reading “Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith”

Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.

The imperial palace burned.

According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.

What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?

Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.

This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:

EU4 Welcome to Meiguo

Continue reading “Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo”

Very Early Impressions: Battle Academy

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Battle Academy

So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:

Battle Academy - 8th Army DefenceCurrently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.

  1. I’m three missions and 2-3 hours in.

Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse

Just as I associate post-apocalyptic video games with one franchise, Fallout, so I associate post-apocalyptic strategy with one game, Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires. It’s an excellent game, whose design I dissected several few years ago. It’s also a unique game – both in the sense that it’s original, and in the sense that it’s the only “strategic level” post-apocalyptic game I can think of. Even adding a few strategy games that take place at smaller scales produces a very short list1.

Continue reading “Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse”

  1. Fallout Tactics is a squad-based tactical RPG. Convoy is a new (and apparently flawed) indie game billed as FTL meets Mad Max. And if zombies count, Sarah Northway’s Rebuild was a Flash game that took place in the aftermath of a zombie invasion.

Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

Continue reading “Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A”